New Delhi, India – From the confines of her parents’ home to the regulation of a hostel; from the “custody” of her parents to the “guardianship” of the college dean: freedom is arriving in instalments for 24-year-old Hadiya.
India’s top court on Monday finally heard Hadiya, a woman from a Hindu family whose marriage to a Muslim man had been annulled by a lower court earlier this year. She has been under the custody of her father since then.
“I want my freedom. I have been in unlawful custody for 11 months. I want to be a good citizen, a good doctor but I want to live true to my faith,” the 24-year-old medical student told a three-judge bench at the Supreme Court in New Delhi.
Hadiya, who was previously known by her Hindu name Akhila Asokan, converted to Islam last January and married a Muslim man later that year despite opposition from her family.
— Mumbai Mirror (@MumbaiMirror) November 28, 2017
Hadiya’s husband, Safin Jahan, approached the Supreme Court to challenge the lower court’s order. Last month the Supreme Court said that consent of an adult for marriage is prime.
The top court in its earlier hearing in August had reserved its judgement and instead ordered an investigation by the country’s anti-terror agency into whether the marriage was, in fact, a “Love Jihad”.
Rights activists and feminists have accused state institutions of perpetuating a “patriarchal and Islamophobic” narrative pushed by far-right Hindu groups.
‘Shameful show’ by the court
In recent years, far-right Hindu groups have stepped up a campaign against “Love Jihad” – a term for what they consider to be an alleged Islamist conspiracy to convert Hindu women through seduction, marriage and money.
Hadiya’s father KM Ashokan has alleged that his daughter converted to Islam as part of a plan to send her to Syria to join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).
In its latest orders, the apex court sent Hadiya to a college in the southern state of Tamil Nadu to pursue her studies. The state police forces will be responsible for her security for the next 11 months until she completes them.
This takes her out of her parents’ “custody”, which Hadiya on Monday described as illegal. On her way to New Delhi from her home in Kottayam, she had said that she wanted to stay with her husband.
Kapil Sibbal, senior counsel for Shafin, told Al Jazeera that the court order today spells freedom for Hadiya and that “no impediments have been placed on her”.
But Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, says Monday was “a weak and shameful show” by the court.
“It’s a limited measure of liberty she has got. The Supreme Court has failed to do its duty which is to protect her constitutional liberty. What I would have expected the Supreme Court to tell her is that – ‘You are completely free’. Why is the court saying that ‘you must study here, and you must live in a hostel’? How is this the court’s business?” Krishnan told Al Jazeera.
“This day will be remembered for Hadiya’s bravery. Her courageous voice shames the Supreme Court. Hadiya’s insistence on being heard and her courage ensured she has got some measure of liberty.”
Hadiya’s father’s counsel argued that the court must first examine the probe report submitted by the National Investigation Agency (NIA).
India’s chief justice had summoned Hadiya to New Delhi to testify on whether she was converted forcefully.
Religious conversion is legal in India provided it is not done under coercion.
Challenge to patriarchy
Hadiya’s battle has posed a challenge to the patriarchy in India, say activists.
Men and women are still murdered across the villages of northern India for marrying outside their caste and religion. Cases of illegal abortions of female foetuses and immolation of young brides by their in-laws for not fulfilling dowry demands are also rampant.
Activist Krishnan says “Love Jihad” is a right-wing concept which has “zero respect for women’s choice and consent”.
The BIGGEST threat from #HadiyaCase is to HINDU WOMEN. This threatens their freedom to do marry without parental approval. The closer your family is to Hindutva elements, the greater the risk that they can physically capture you to prevent your freedom.
— You may call me V (@Vidyut) November 27, 2017
“In recent months, I have seen big TV channels try to manufacture traction for this myth. What’s new in the Hadiya case is that the Kerala High Court endorsed and perpetuated this regressive, patriarchal and Islamophobic formulation,” Krishnan told Al Jazeera.
“They see women as the property of communities.”
Critics of the Narendra Modi-led government say the bogey of “Love Jihad” was created by affiliated groups to further their majoritarian Hindu agenda.
The term “Love Jihad” was popularised by Hindu supremacist groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliate groups such as Bajrang Dal and Vishva Hindu Parishad.
“Girls of the coming generation should be told the meaning of ‘Love Jihad’ and the ways to save themselves from their traps,” RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat said in 2014.
Hindu far-right groups allied with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have run a campaign against Hindu women marrying Muslim men.
‘Demonisation of Muslims’
This is “part of a systematic attempt to drive a deeper rift, a deeper wedge between the two communities”, said activist and former civil servant Harsh Mander.
“Hatred between communities is always built around a set of myths. The idea of ‘Love Jihad’, that Muslim men were being used to lure Hindu women, is particularly strange and fanciful. It would be a comical idea if it were not so dangerous,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The fact that the federal terror investigative agency of the country, and the High Court and the former Chief Justice are actually taking this type of an argument seriously – I find that intensely worrying.”
The NIA in its report to the Supreme Court referred to alleged cases in Kerala where Hindu women were “lured” into converting to Islam, allegedly to recruit them to “terror” causes.
The term “Love Jihad” should be treated with scepticism, said human rights campaigner Shabnam Hashmi.
“The phrase is being used to demonise India’s Muslims. This new regime has used this trope very effectively just like the narrative around the holy cow and campaign for the temple for the Hindu God Ram. These are various tools of polarising Indians,” she told Al Jazeera.